60. As the dust settles

Peter Burke
Oxford For Europe

24 May 2021

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Were you up for Chipping Norton?

“Our duty is clear: every one of us who has sworn the oath must act to prevent the unravelling of our democracy. This is not about policy. This is not about partisanship. This is about our duty as Americans. Remaining silent and ignoring the lie emboldens the liar.”

Liz Cheney, just before her Republican colleagues removed her last week from the chairmanship of the US House Republican Conference for telling the truth about Trump..

“I am very sorry for the events of 25 years ago and I believe leadership means taking responsibility.”

Lord Hall, resigning from his role as chairman of the National Gallery over the Bashir scandal

The dust is settling on the May elections. Should Oxford For Europe take a view? We are emphatically not a party political organisation. We are proud to accept members from any party, and indeed to speak up for any party, provided that they share our basic values. These are the values of democracy, honesty, openness, true (as opposed to bogus) internationalism, respect for the law, and evidence based decision making. Sadly the Tory party of today – or more precisely its leadership – is seriously lacking on all these counts. Indeed I wonder how many current ministers could recite the elements of the ministerial code if challenged (For what its worth they are Selflessness, Integrity, Objectivity, Accountability, Openness, Honesty and Leadership). Such a challenge is, of course, unlikely under the current regime. This Tory party is a very different one from that of even five years ago. One of the great achievements of our current Prime Minister is to make almost all of his predecessors look competent and principled by comparison. We could be forgiven for feeling just a twinge of nostalgia even for Margaret Thatcher or for David Cameron, despite the recent evidence of DC’s venal and self seeking behaviour.

Peter Oborne, formerly of the Mail and Telegraph, and now author of The Assault on Truth – Boris Johnson, Donald Trump and the emergence of a new moral barbarism

And if you still believe that all this talk about the dishonesty of Johnson and, by extension , the ministers who cover up for him, is overblown, I suggest that you listen to Peter Oborne, Fintan O’Toole, Peter Stefanovic, or even former Johnson fangirl Laura Kuenssberg. Sadly we are saddled with a Prime Minister who tells the truth only when it is expedient to do so. In previous years a politician caught out deliberately lying in parliament would be expected to walk. Alas, no more. Taking responsibility, as Tony Hall did, or standing up for the truth, like Liz Cheney – these are alien concepts to those now in power.

A bogus bounce?

Against this background it comes perhaps as no surprise that the Tory party has used the pandemic for its own purposes. It has profited from a ‘vaccine bounce’,  taking the credit for something which was very largely down to the hard work of others. The prime minister waited until after the local elections to give his “I have to level with you” speech. The feelgood factor of believing that foreign holidays were around the corner was powerful. What would have happened if this bubble had been burst two weeks earlier? The disappointment of today might possibly have been avoided. Would the elections have gone differently? As we now know, the decision to put India on the Red List was delayed by three weeks at a time when Johnson was planning a trade visit and wanted to ingratiate himself with Modi – himself a coronavirus denier. Pakistan and Bangladesh were already on the red list despite having fewer cases of coronavirus. 20,000 travellers entered the UK from India during the crucial three weeks and did not have to go into hotel quarantine. No amount of local action would have been enough to prevent the coronavirus variant originating in India from taking hold. This is only one of the many things for which our Prime Minister must take responsibility .

We now hear yet again from Dominic Cummings that in Spring 2020 Boris Johnson deliberately delayed taking action, based on a policy of herd immunity. Has he learned nothing in the meantime? It will be good to believe that there will be some official acknowledgement once the forthcoming inquiry reports. It will not however start its work for another year and we most certainly will see nothing emerging from it until after the next election.

A trade deal to die for?

Meanwhile of course the knock on effects of Brexit continue. The Labour Party seems to have taken a vow of silence on the subject and leave it to the nationalist parties to call the government out on its planned Australian trade deal. This deal promises to bring virtually zero economic benefits, yet will pose an existential threat to British agriculture through cheap competition and will harm the consumer through lower food standards. Can we be surprised that UK farmers are angry when their products are required to meet higher standards than imports from the far side of the world? Even more importantly, the deal creates a precedent for others, in particular the USA. And of course going forward it will further harm the UK’s ability to sell to the EU. It is being rushed through by what the Express, without a trace of irony, calls “Wonder Woman Liz Truss”, because this government wants to see something in place before the forthcoming G7 summit,  and of course the Australian negotiators know that they can exact a high price from a negotiating partner who is both desperate and in a hurry. They are after all not fools. Would that the same thing applied do their opposite numbers in this country.  

Oxfordshire before and after 6 May. NB One of the Banbury divisions seems to have turned from red to blue. This is an error, but can be corrected only after it has been taken to court
Some local consolation

At a time when we need to lick our wounds over the Tories’ ill deserved national success, there was at least some consolation in looking closer to home. Oxfordshire is not unique in bucking the national trend, but what has happened here is significant nonetheless. Not only have the Tories lost control of the County Council, but their leader, Ian Hudspeth, has been unseated. The council is now run by a yellow/red/green coalition, under the leadership of the redoubtable Liz Leffman, who four years ago gave the Tories a run for their money in David Cameron’s old seat of Witney.  And, wonder of wonders, Chipping Norton, made famous by Cameron, Rebekah Brooks and the other members of the “Chipping Norton set” has been taken from the Tories by Labour’s Geoff Saul. Even the Mail found this newsworthy. And where the Tories appeared to make an early gain from Labour, in Banbury Ruscote, the explanation was a clerical error. Bizarrely it will take legal action to correct this.

Congratulations to Oxford For Europe’s activists who won or retained seats in the elections, including Ian Middleton, Andrew Prosser and Tom Landell Mills, and good wishes to the many others who stood and put up a valiant fight.

Oxford For Europe activist Ian Middleton, now a County Councillor for Kidlington South

Perhaps Oxfordshire is symbolic of a new national trend. Labour may hanker after the losses in its traditional norther working-class ‘heartlands’, but that is no longer where it is strongest. Perhaps its strategies should reflect this.

The social class gradient in the 2019 is not what you might have expected (please excuse the terminology chosen by YouGov)

Much of the success of the Liberal Democrats and Greens in Oxfordshire, who raised their joint tenure on the County Council from 14 to 24 seats, is down to their ability to work together. In many seats the two parties stood down in favour of each other. Labour has taken no part in this, and yet it has benefited from the arrangement because it now has a seat at the high table. For the party nationally it is an article of faith that each seat must be contested. And yet the Labour Party has no route to government unless this changes.

This is about to be put to the test. There are opportunities in two forthcoming by elections to deprive this government of victory. In Chesham and Amersham on 17 June there is a potential challenge from the Liberal Democrats, and in Batley and Spen, prospectively in July, the Labour Party have a far better chance than they did in Hartlepool of retaining Jo Cox’s old seat. However, in both cases the Tories’ chances will be greatly enhanced if the opposition parties fail to work together. So far there has been little sign of collaboration, but it is not too late and the stakes are high.  We badly need some common sense just now.

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The views stated here are those of the author, and not necessarily those of Oxford For Europe

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